Mental Images

Mental Images: Seeing In your Mind’s Eye

Psychologists generally define thinking as the mental representation and manipulation of information. When we think, we often represent information in our minds in the form of images.

  • A mental image is a mental picture or representation of an object or event. People form mental images of many different objects—faces of familiar people, the lay-out of the furniture in their homes, the letters of the alphabet, a graduation or religious ceremony.

A mental image is not an actual or photographic representation. Rather, it is a reconstruction of the object or event from memory.

The ability to hold and manipulate mental images helps us perform many cognitive tasks, including remembering directions. You could use verbal descriptions (“Let’s see, that was two lefts and a right, right?”). But forming a mental image—for example, picturing the church where you make a left turn and the gas station where you make a right—may work better.

Mental imaging can also lead to creative solutions to puzzling problems. Many of Albert Einstein’s creative insights arose from personal thought experiments. His creative journey in developing his landmark theory of relativity began at age 16 when he pictured in his mind what it would be like to ride a light beam at the speed of light (Isaacson, 2007). He was later to say that words did not play any role in his creative thought. Words came only after he was able to create mental images of new ideas he had formulated in his thought experiments.

The parts of the visual cortex we use in forming mental images are very similar to those we use when actually observing objects. Yet there is an important difference between an image imagined and image seen: The former can be manipulated, but the latter cannot. For example, we can manipulate imagined images in our minds by rotating them or perusing them from different angles. Figure X provides an opportunity to test your ability to manipulate mental images.

mental rotation objects
Figure X. Are the objects that form a pair in this figure the same? Answering this question depends on your ability to rotate objects in your mind’s eye.
Figure X. Mental Rotation | Are the objects that form a pair in this figure the same? Answering this question depends on your ability to rotate objects in your mind’s eye.

Investigators finder gender differences in mental imagery. For example, women tend to outperform men in remembering the spatial location of objects (Aamodt & Wang, 2008). Perhaps that’s why husbands seem so often to ask their wives where they have put their keys or their glasses. Women may be better at recalling where things are placed because of their greater skill in visually scanning an image of a particular location in their minds.

Mental imagery is not limited to visual images. Most people can experience mental images of other sensory experiences, such as “hearing” in their minds the rousing first chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or recalling the taste of a fresh strawberry or the feel of cotton brushing lightly against the cheek. Yet people generally have an easier time forming visual images than images of other sensory experiences.